Bundled or Unbundled 401(k) Provider – How to Choose Blog Feature
Eric Droblyen

By: Eric Droblyen on November 10th, 2021

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Bundled or Unbundled 401(k) Provider – How to Choose

Provider Shopping | Plan Setup

401(k) providers can deliver either "bundled" or "unbundled" plan administration services. A bundled (or “full-service”) provider delivers all three of the major plan administration services - asset custody, participant recordkeeping, and Third-Party Administration (TPA) - while an unbundled provider allies with at least one other company to deliver all three services. If you’re a business owner, understanding the differences between the two service models can help you choose the best 401(k) provider for you and your employees.

High 401(k) Fees

The Major 401(k) Administration Services

All 401(k) plans require three basic plan administration services:

  1. Asset custody – holding plan assets in a trust, executing trade instructions sent by the plan recordkeeper
  2. Participant recordkeeping – allocating plan assets among participants, maintaining an online portal for plan participants and sponsors
  3. Third-Party Administration (TPA) – completing annual ERISA compliance, including nondiscrimination testing, Form 5500 reporting, participant disclosure, and plan document maintenance

Bundled 401(k) providers deliver all three services, while unbundled providers deliver only one or two. To deliver all three services, an unbundled provider must ally with at least one other service provider.

A fiduciary-grade investment adviser or a non-fiduciary broker and insurance agent can usually be added to a bundled or unbundled 401(k) provider for professional investment advice.

The Differences Between Bundled vs. Unbundled 401(k) Providers

In general, bundled providers offer lower fees and more straightforward services, while unbundled providers can be more custom or high-touch. Other major differences include:

Feature

Bundled 401(k) Providers

Unbundled 401(k) Providers

Service model

One company delivers all three of the major 401(k) administration services.

Two or more companies ally to deliver all three services.

Price

Usually cost less.

Usually cost more due to multiple service providers.

Customer support

More likely to offer a single point of contact for business owners.

More likely to have multiple contacts – one for each service provider.

Plan design options

No difference generally. However, in my experience, 401(k) plans with obscure features (e.g., ESOP, ROBS, or prevailing wage) are most often serviced by unbundled specialists.

Financial advisor options

No difference generally. A fiduciary-grade investment adviser or a non-fiduciary broker and insurance agent can be added to either provider for professional investment advice.

In-person meetings

Not likely for small businesses.

Often available for a fee.

How to Choose Between the Two 401(k) Provider Types

Bundled and unbundled 401(k) providers are not inherently better or worse than the other. In fact, each type of 401(k) provider can range from great (competent and consultative services for reasonable prices) to awful (sloppy and/or cookie-cutter services for excessive fees).

My general recommendation when choosing between them - go bundled unless you want a niche plan design or in-person care. Bundled providers are usually less costly and complicated.

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About Eric Droblyen

Eric Droblyen began his career as an ERISA compliance specialist with Charles Schwab in the mid-1990s. His keen grasp on 401k plan administration and compliance matters has made Eric a sought after speaker. He has delivered presentations at a number of events, including the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries (ASPPA) Annual Conference. As President and CEO of Employee Fiduciary, Eric is responsible for all aspects of the company’s operations and service delivery.

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